Artwork featuring Christ overlaid with Looney Tunes characters removed by Sydney council after threats of violence

<span>Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem by artist Philjames. The artwork was removed from Casula Powerhouse after triggering a barrage of criticism on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Supplied</span>
Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem by artist Philjames. The artwork was removed from Casula Powerhouse after triggering a barrage of criticism on Friday.Photograph: Supplied

A Sydney council has removed a “playful” artwork of Jesus Christ overlaid with Looney Tunes characters after a torrent of online abuse.

Sydney artist Philjames’ work, Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem, was removed from the Blake Art Prize exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre after fierce criticism was directed at the artist and gallery on Friday, just two days before the eight-week exhibition ended.

The biennial prize at the Liverpool city council gallery recognises contemporary artwork that explore spirituality and religion and draws artists from all beliefs and cultural backgrounds.

But a last-minute online protest claimed the 2023 oil-on-lithograph work mocked the Christian religion, with some protesters threatening the museum and its staff – many of whom are volunteers – with violence.

Philjames said he received about 200 “vile” social media messages on Friday and Saturday, with the gallery receiving over 60 phone calls from protesters on Friday alone.

“I do like stirring a bit of a reaction with my work, but the novelty very quickly wore off on Friday. The level of vitriol and the sheer volume of it was actually frightening,” the 48-year-old said.

“I’ve been doing these sorts of works for around 15 years and I’ve had one or two people upset but nothing like this. It was vile and not at all Christian.”

One protester warned him that the gallery “better get some extra security”, he said.

“The poor staff who work there don’t need this. It’s not worth it.”

Liverpool mayor Ned Mannoun called for the removal of the painting in the face of what he called “many complaints from numerous residents who were disgusted and offended that Liverpool Council was displaying this artwork”.

“The Christian Messiah and the Muslim Messiah Jesus has no connection to the cartoon character Goofy”, he said in a statement.

Charlie Bakhos, the founder of conservative Catholic group, Christian Lives Matter, told supporters on social media that the “shocking disrespectful art” had been removed.

“This is another attack on Christianity we have managed to put a stop to thanks to everyone’s support. Let’s keep defending our faith respectfully and we will get results as Jesus is on our side.”

The acting Liverpool Council CEO, Jason Breton, said the artwork was removed in response to the mayor’s position, safety concerns and the community response.

While Philjames said he was “absolutely happy to put safety first”, he was concerned that the incident may set a precedent for limits on freedom of expression.

“That for me is the most problematic thing: the mayor requested it to be taken down, putting politicking before freedom of expression. Where does it end?”

Mannoun said the right to free speech needed to be balanced with the right to practise religion without fear, persecution or ridicule.

“Liverpool is one of the most religious LGAs in Sydney. Religious art should be respectful and unifying, not divisive and disrespectful.”

He said he would make the same calls about art that he considered to be antisemitic or derogatory of any religion.

Police were contacted to inform them of potential unrest around the artwork, the council confirmed.

The prize is open to believers and non-believers and prizes are strictly non-sectarian. Philjames, whose work has been described as Kafkaesque and surreal, said he grew up attending Sunday school but is not religious.

“I find it all a bit absurd, it was a playful work. I like incorporating cartoon characters – they deal with human issues,” he said.

“To be honest, there wasn’t really any meaning behind the piece. It’s just an image – choose your own adventure.”

The artist has given his absurdist treatment to a number of subjects, including Queen Elizabeth II, Donald Trump and Christopher Reeve. He is represented by the Chalk Horse Gallery in Darlinghurst and has entered the Blake Prize “numerous times”.

He said he had received an outpouring of support from the artistic community over the weekend.

Blake prize organisers are no strangers to controversy. In 2011, artist Luke Roberts’ triptych of depictions of the crucifixion featured an intersex woman wearing only a pink G-string and nipple tassels.

It prompted the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Rob Forsyth, to say the work was “something [he] would not be happy about,” but that did not mean it should be forbidden.

In 2007, two separate Blake prize artworks attracted the criticism of both John Howard and Kevin Rudd. One depicted the Virgin Mary wearing a Muslim burqa and another morphed an image of Osama bin Laden with that of a depiction of Jesus Christ.

“The choice of such artwork is gratuitously offensive to the religious beliefs of many Australians,” Howard told News Ltd newspapers at the time.